Spoiler alert

Fresh from slaying the Nurburgring, can Hondaís scalpel-sharp Civic Type R put some formidable all-wheel-drive rivals in the shape of the Ford Focus RS and Volkswagen Golf R to the sword?

WORDS RYAN LEWIS PHOTOS NATHAN JACOBS

TYPE R, as we know it, is dead.

That fabled emblem, venerated by petrolheads, once symbolised Hondaís unique brand of lightweight, freebreathing, high-rpm thrills. Early Type Rs were revelatory Ė particularly the DC2 Integra variety Ė but the game has changed over its 20-year epoch, and Australia has never seen the Civic Type R at its best.

Our sole exposure ended six long years ago when the European-sourced third-gen model departed Oz after a four-year tenure. There were no eulogies. Honda had diluted the Type R formula by that point, and its storied history of purist performance cars had started petering out long ago.

Honda Australia skipped the fleeting fourth-gen Type R, wisely choosing not to market a car built on the inferior ninth-generation Civic platform alongside the all-new gen-10 hatch. Instead, the local arm held out for what it now bills as a rebirth of the marque.

Civic Type R has taken a doctrinal turn for its latest reincarnation. Hondaís front-wheel-drive libertine has, for the first time, adopted turbocharging to stay within touch of its bullish contemporaries and returned to an independent (in this case, multi-link) rear suspension set-up that should never have disappeared.

Todayís hot-hatch landscape is tough going for a newcomer. Never has $50K afforded such a combination of power, capability and complexity. Ford tore up the segmentís front lawn last year with the brash all-wheeldrive Focus RS, pitching an antisocial curveball at Volkswagenís much-admired Golf R in the process. Even though the core DNA of the Blue Ovalís manic disruptor is beginning to show its age, as a complete driverís package it arguably represents the Type Rís biggest challenge. The comparatively debonair VW, on the other hand, sets another benchmark the Honda must meet if it wants to be considered a true all-rounder.

Not that youíd ever believe that possible given the Type Rís singularly focused styling. Itís by far the most visually challenging car of this trio. The base Civic isnít exactly an easy starting point, but the over-styled Type R shows no restraint. Its gangly body addenda introduce so many design elements to an already-fussy form that itís impossible to find a clean line anywhere.

There are practical problems caused by the Type Rís questionable looks, too. That gargantuan rear wing combines with the Civicís raked C-pillar to create a massive vision obstruction. Still, if standing out from the crowd is everything, then the Type R is for you.

Ruefully, the brilliant Focus was criticised back in Wheels Summer í16 issue for looking gawky, and in flashy Nitrous Blue, overtly ostentatious. But today, in sinister Magnetic Grey on optional forged black 19s, the RS fades into the background alongside the wildly over-the-top white Civic on showy 20s.

Trademark conservatism gives the Volkswagen a clear point of difference in this company. The Golf R is easily the most discreet and visually sophisticated of the three, light-on for drama but distinctly cultured inside and out. In profile, the R could be any other Golf with a big set of wheels, and for many, thatís a huge part of its appeal. But in the quest for ultimate excitement, is the German icon merely downplaying its talents?

Top honours in the horsepower fight goes to the

HIGHER LEANING

wheelsaustralia 49 Criticism levelled at the Focus RSís elevated seating position hasnít fallen on deaf ears, yet the high-riding issue remains. Lowering the fixed-height Recaros would mean resubmitting for homologation, as a hip-point change effectively alters the crash structure.

ďThe car was tested as a range, so the RS would have to be independently tested and itís just too expensive for a niche model,Ē explained a Ford spokesman.

ďItís a value-driven performance car.

Itís not a minor change that weíre skimping on; itíd be a significant reengineering of that platform from a safety point of view.Ē

FRONT & CENTRE

Competition breeds innovation at a breakneck pace, and by Christmas the hot-hatch niche will be bursting with complex front-wheel-drive challengers for the Type R.

Hondaís French arch rival, and opponent to its Nurburgring lap record, the Renaultsport Megane, will land in next-gen five-door guise featuring a boosted 1.8-litre four producing 205kW/390Nm, four-wheel steering and the option of a dual-clutch íbox (joining a proper manual) for the first time.

Also coming on strong is Hyundaiís i30 N from Europe with 202kW/353Nm in Performance Pack trim, with a six-speed manual and electronic LSD as standard. An eightspeed dual-clutch íbox is due within two years, meaning both of these new entrants will cater to a market that the manualonly Civic doesnít. Around $50K should put all of these options within reach at the pointy end of the segment.

The Type R is brutally quick once up and running, and smashes its rivals for ingear urgency

257kW/440Nm Focus RS, which puts everything on the line in the name of performance, though lugging a porky 1575kg, it damn well needs to. The Civic Type R sits lineball with the $50,990 Focus on price, and midpack for grunt (228kW/400Nm), yet its weight-optimised front-drive underpinnings mean the Honda undercuts the Ford by a solid 182kg, leaving them neck-and-neck in the power-to-weight stakes.

At $52,990, the six-speed manual Golf R is marginally the most expensive, and also the least powerful (213kW/380Nm), though for an all-wheel driver to get within 36kg of the Civicís mass says volumes about the VWís architectural sophistication. Yet at the strip itís inevitably left trailing.

Thanks to a foolproof launch procedure Ė clutch in, rev to the 6750rpm limiter, then side-step your left foot Ė the Focus delivers ballistic standing-start performance and early blows on the competition, proving easily the quickest car to 100km/h (5.0sec), time after time, without a hint of protest. And itís quicker when you do everything yourself, rather than relying on launch control. In comparison, the reluctantto- launch Golf neither sounds or smells like it enjoys being caned to 100km/h (in 5.6sec), while the Civic (5.8sec) suffers simply by being traction-limited.

But the Type R is brutally quick once up and running, and smashes its rivals for in-gear urgency. Hondaís new 2.0-litre turbo four feels torque-light at low revs, though its frothy top-end rush becomes addictive from 3500rpm onwards. Spin it to the 7000rpm redline and upshifts are instantly rewarded with the tacho dropping back into full-boost territory. And its sound is wonderfully animated, with a rowdy induction roar and a metallic zinging at the upper reaches, though thereís little action from the exhaust. The Type Rís trio of tailpipes promise a ruckus, but donít deliver it. In fact, the central outlet is designed to reduce cabin drone at cruising speeds by drawing air in. And it works.

The Fordís 2.3-litre turbo four is the most characterful engine of the group, and lovably uncouth in Sport mode, with a rat-a-tat-tat drum line from its exhausts.

On paper, its engine appears to be a straight lift from the Mustang EcoBoost, but the RS (mercifully) gets a Cosworth head and a unique intake, exhaust and turbocharger. Itís a relentlessly energetic thing, with the most linear power delivery here. And enormous mid-range thrust Ė as much as 470Nm Ė is churned out when Ďoverboostí parameters allow.

Volkswagen relies on a sound synthesiser to artificially introduce induction theatre through the Golf Rís speakers. Maybe thatís tacit admission that, despite having the most audible turbo spool, VWís boosted 2.0-litre lacks the mechanical personality found in the other two cars. There are muted gurgles and pops from the tailpipes in Race mode, but itís ultimately too demure for what is Volkswagenís flagship sports hatch.

It certainly deserves a little more bombast to bolster its undoubted muscularity.

For all its visual peacocking, the Type R has an unexpected level of Golf-esque maturity, and comes close to the VWís plushness when each carís adaptive dampers are switched to their most easy-going modes.

Incredibly, the Civicís ride comfort isnít sacrificed by its liquorice-strip 245/30R20 rubber, though it suffers from noticeable tyre roar on such tiny sidewalls, which is made more obvious by the lack of exhaust rumble.

The Focus canít compete with the other two when

it comes to comfort. It doesnít do duality of character with any great conviction. Its firm, adaptively damped ride toggles between uncompromising and unbearable, though itís dialled-in well enough to be stomached from the front seats on a daily basis. Rear-seat occupants may struggle in combination with poor visibility. The payoff, however, is ten-tenths handling excellence.

Excitement is so accessible in the RS. Itís almost hyperactive in its behaviour, always on the balls of its feet and happy to be driven by the scruff of its neck.

It relishes the ragged edge. But you also know exactly where youíre at because its steering is immediate Ė light, yet full of feel Ė and unerringly accurate.

Manhandle it into tight corners and the Focus RS will lift its inside rear wheel, while Race Track mode allows small oversteer slides that require little correction, and inject a shot of adrenaline into the experience.

Yet excellent brake pedal modulation and seemingly bottomless reserves of grip mean this larrikin remains friendly and easy to rein in.

The Type R is a completely different sort of car to drive quickly. It needs to be managed, and demands patience and forward planning. Set up before a corner, the Type R tears through with huge speed and minimal scrabbling as its limited-slip differential sniffs out grip. Thereís some wheel fight on boost from the highly stressed front end, but its steering is fluid and predictable Ė less darty than the Fordís Ė and its relative lack of driven wheels seldom feels like a limitation, except on greasy surfaces. It also has the slickest gearshift feel and best clutch relationship here.

Intuitive is the word.

The Civicís slightly longer wheelbase carries pace less frantically than the Focus, yet because it takes familiarity to extract the best from it and achieve the same level of excitement, it could be argued that itís the more rewarding driverís car. The Honda is quick to learn, but difficult to master. Either way, itís a resounding return to form for the Type R badge.

What the Civic and the Focus have that the Golf doesnít is immediacy. Every input in the VW feels like it has a level of dampening built in to give an ultra-slick sheen of refinement. The R is an extremely effective tool, but its Teflon coating manifests as a layer of separation between driver and machine. Less initial bite from the brake pedal reduces confidence in what is otherwise a solid set-up. And thereís remoteness in the shift feel and steering as well. That said, the R is an astonishingly quick car when driven on its terms, rewarding smooth inputs.

Thereís a ruthless precision to the way the VW goes about carving through corners. Its inert rear end offers huge traction and is faithful to a fault, but it means the Golf is the least playful car here. Alongside two

FOCUS

RSís much-maligned seating position hasnít changed (see breakout p49). And Fordís cabin design doesnít help either with the cheapest dash plastics and least perceived quality. But updated Sync 3 infotainment system is a big step up, bringing smartphone mirroring and excellent voice control. Pedal positioning is near perfect, making it easy to heel and toe, though the overly springy clutch takes some getting used to.

CIVIC

Flashy red seats are the most comfortable and supportive of the three, not to mention the lightest ever fitted to a Type R. A red LED above the centre console illuminates the shifter and drive mode switch at night. Omitting standard navigation and relying on smartphone mirroring is a faux pas, but standard active safety is a plus. Rear bench only has two seatbelts, but offers the most legroom.

Civicís boot is also the largest.

GOLF

Golf Rís interior offers premium quality with the best materials and finest fit and finish. VWís beautiful and functional interface runs across a customisable digital dashboard and 9.2-inch central touchscreen. The Rís leather seats are comfortable, well-bolstered and feature electric adjustment. Rear seat occupants are best catered for by the Golf with rear vents, map pockets, centre armrest, plenty of room and good visibility.

extremely spirited and involving driverís cars, the Golf R comes off feeling a bit anodyne and clinical, despite the thoroughness of its engineering.

Where the Golf R method really works is in its packaging and its civility as a car that can be driven and admired every day. Itís the most convincing from a spec point of view, and being pampered in its beautifully appointed interior would never be a source of frustration in traffic.

Compared to the Golf, the Fordís ageing feature set looks relatively malnourished. Ergonomically, the RS is a mixed bag as well, with a front seating position thatís simply too high, leaving the driverís left knee to bang against the centre console. Positive implications for outward visibility mean thereís an argument in favour of the lofty perch, but you need to adapt to it.

The rest of the Fordís cabin is a cheap and cheerful reminder that the fruity RS doesnít fall far from the Focus tree. It remains a useful grocery-getter at its core, but the RSís premium price buys tricky mechanical has $50K afforded combination of capability and things like GKNís excellent torque-vectoring, all-wheeldrive set-up, not swathes of tactile cabin surfaces.

The Type Rís interior is another design experiment in throwing everything into a space and seeing what sticks. A bitsy and segmented (though solidly screwed together) cabin means the Civicís secondary controls are far from intuitive. Admittedly, Honda has lifted the bar for standard equipment but the Type Rís frustrating infotainment system undoes that good work with lockouts for important drive settings when on the move.

Its auto rev-matching feature, which is a neat novelty, canít be toggled off on the fly either.

Also lacking in the Honda is an individually configurable drive mode. The +R setting has a firm ride thatís a step too far on badly pockmarked roads, forcing you backwards into the lesser Sport or Comfort settings for ride compliance, while sacrificing ultimate engine sharpness. The Focus allows its sport dampers to be independently turned on and off, leaving only the steering and throttle mapping paired together, whereas the Golf has a fully customisable set-up and can be configured exactly as required.

Thatís just one of many pragmatic things the Golf R does well, though the USP of a range-topping hot hatch is surely exhilaration. In isolation, the Golf R has the capacity to raise heartbeats, but in this company, judged primarily on thrill factor, the elevated dynamic highs of the Honda and Ford go beyond those of the Volkswagen. The Golf is far from shamed if daily driveability weighs heavily on your criteria, but in this test it has to finish third.

Splitting the remaining pair boils down to hothatch semantics. The Type R comes closest to the Golf Rís level of liveability. It spoils you when driven well and has loads of performance on tap, yet it also manages to cope effortlessly with general duties. Being everything to everyone is a tall order, yet Honda comes close to nailing the brief with its Nurburgring record holder.

Its anime-inspired styling, however, is difficult to swallow. By their very nature hot hatches are about image, and thereís an unshakeable feeling that arriving at a BBQ in the Type R could result in an afternoon spent defending its caricatured appearance and attempting to justify all that is good about it. Of which there is plenty, if you can get your audience to listen.

The Ford is the most transparent car here.

Even as the elder statesman, it has a strikingly contemporary and tough look about it that can be understated when discerningly specified. But as a hot hatch, the Focus RS is molten, and will make you crave a special driving stage every time youíre behind the wheel. Itís the most instantly gratifying car here, with a more road-friendly engine whose stout mid-range means you donít need to explore the high revs that ignite the Civic.

So on an emotional and dynamic level, itís the Ford that delivers the highest highs, beyond all the box-ticking that might sway someone towards a Golf R. Close as the Type R comes to being a hothatch hero, itís those visceral qualities that give the Focus RS the edge.

FORD FOCUS RS

Performance Power-to-weight: 163kW per tonne Redline/cut-out: 6600/6750rpm Speed at indicated 100km/h: 97 Speed in gears 61km/h @ 6600rpm 102km/h @ 6600rpm 150km/h @ 6600rpm 193km/h @ 6600rpm 243km/h @ 6600rpm 266km/h @ 6100rpm* Standing-start acceleration 0-20km/h: 0.7sec 0-40km/h: 1.4sec 0-60km/h: 2.3sec 0-80km/h: 3.6sec 0-100km/h: 5.0sec 0-120km/h: 7.1sec 0-140km/h: 9.1sec 0-160km/h: 12.1sec 0-180km/h: 15.8sec 0-200km/h: 20.9sec 0-400m: 13.4sec @ 169.1km/h Rolling acceleration: 3rd/4th/5th/6th 80-12Okm/h: 3.2/4.1/5.3/6.7sec Braking distance 10Okm/h-0: 34.8m

Verdict 8.0/10 Mighty performance; mega grip; immediacy; fun factor Sport damper tune, interior finish, practicality, lack of active safety Track: Heathcote Raceway, dry. Temp: 15ļC.

Driver: Alex Inwood. Warranty: 3yr/100,000km.

Service interval: 12 months/15,000km. Glassís 3-year resale: 55%.

AAMI Insurance: $1835 * Manufacturerís claim. ** Includes premium paint ($500), forged alloy wheels and Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres ($3500). 1 2 3 4 5 6 $50,990/As tested $54,990** Drivetrain Engine in-line 4, dohc, 16v, turbo Layout front engine (east-west), all drive Capacity 2261cc Power 257kW @ 6000rpm Torque 440Nm @ 2000-4500rpm Transmission 6-speed manual Chassis Body steel, 5 doors, 5 seats L/W/H/WĖB 4390/1823/1472/2647mm Front/rear track 1564/1539mm Weight 1575kg Boot capacity 260/1045 litres Fuel/capacity 95 octane/51 litres Fuel consumption 12.9L/100km (test average) Suspension Front: struts, A-arms, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar Rear: multi-links, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar Steering electric rack-and-pinion Turning Circle 11.8m (2.0 turns lock-to-lock) Front brakes ventilated discs (350mm) Rear brakes solid discs (302mm) Tyres Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 Tyre size 235/35ZR19 91Y Safety NCAP rating Not rated

HONDA CIVIC TYPE R

Power-to-weight: 169kW per tonne Redline/cut-out: 7000/7000rpm Speed at indicated 100km/h: 95 Speed in gears 58km/h @ 7000rpm 99km/h @ 7000rpm 137km/h @ 7000rpm 187km/h @ 7000rpm 231km/h @ 7000rpm 272km/h @ 6650rpm* Standing-start acceleration 0-20km/h: 1.1sec 0-40km/h: 2.1sec 0-60km/h: 3.4sec 0-80km/h: 4.3sec 0-100km/h: 5.8sec 0-120km/h: 7.5sec 0-140km/h: 9.8sec 0-160km/h: 12.5sec 0-180km/h: 16.2sec 0-200km/h: 21.7sec 0-400m: 13.9sec @ 171.4km/h Rolling acceleration: 3rd/4th/5th/6th 80-12Okm/h: 3.0/3.7/4.9/7.3sec Braking distance 10Okm/h-0: 35.2m 8.0/10 Driver engagement; engine top-end; shift quality; seat and ride comfort Comic book styling; interior design; infotainment quirks Track: Heathcote Raceway, dry. Temp: 15ļC.

Driver: Alex Inwood. Warranty: 5yr/unlimited km.

Service interval: 12 months/10,000km. Glassís 3-year resale: 55%. AAMI Insurance: $1685 * Manufacturerís claim. ** Includes premium paint ($575). $50,990/As tested $51,565** in-line 4, dohc, 16v, turbo front engine (east-west), front drive 1996cc 228kW @ 6500rpm 400Nm @ 2500-4500rpm 6-speed manual aluminium/steel, 5 doors, 4 seats 4557/1877/1434/2699mm 1599/1593mm 1393kg 420/1209 litres 95 octane/46 litres 11.5L/100km (test average) Front: struts, A-arms, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar Rear: multi-links, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar electric rack-and-pinion 11.8m (2.1 turns lock-to-lock) ventilated discs (350mm) solid discs (305mm) Continental SportContact6 245/30ZR20 XL 90Y Not rated

VW GOLF R

Power-to-weight: 149kW per tonne Redline/cut-out: 6500/6750rpm Speed at indicated 100km/h: 99 Speed in gears 60km/h @ 6500rpm 96km/h @ 6500rpm 136km/h @ 6500rpm 185km/h @ 6500rpm 234km/h @ 6500rpm 250km/h @ 5800rpm* Standing-start acceleration 0-20km/h: 0.6sec 0-40km/h: 1.3sec 0-60km/h: 2.6sec 0-80km/h: 3.8sec 0-100km/h: 5.6sec 0-120km/h: 7.2sec 0-140km/h: 9.8sec 0-160km/h: 12.3sec 0-180km/h: 16.3sec 0-200km/h: N/A 0-400m: 13.6sec @ 168.2km/h Rolling acceleration: 3rd/4th/5th/6th 80-12Okm/h: 3.1/4.1/5.5/7.2sec Braking distance 10Okm/h-0: 37.9m 7.0/10 Flies under the radar; fit and finish; comfort; equipment; refinement Suppressed engine; limited sense of urgency; less interesting than GTI Track: Heathcote Raceway, dry. Temp: 15ļC. Driver: Alex Inwood. Warranty: 3yr/unlimited km. Service interval: 12 months/15,000km. Glassís 3-year resale: 58%. AAMI Insurance: $1767 * Manufacturerís claim. ** Includes driver assistance package ($1300). $52,990/As tested $54,290** in-line 4, dohc, 16v, turbo front engine (east-west), all drive 1984cc 213kW @ 5400-6500rpm 380Nm @ 1850-5300rpm 6-speed manual steel, 5 doors, 5 seats 4263/1799/1436/2626mm 1537/1511mm 1429kg 343/1233 litres 98 octane/55 litres 11.1L/100km (test average) Front: struts, A-arms, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar Rear: multi-links, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar electric rack-and-pinion 10.9m (1.9 turns lock-to-lock) ventilated discs (340mm) ventilated discs (310mm) Pirelli P Zero 235/35R19 91Y Not rated